I played clarinet in the school band. I sang in the church choir. In honor of my 14th birthday I was given a guitar, a book of the 100 great folk songs of America, and the 1962 number 1 hit album “Peter, Paul and Mary.” My destiny was sealed.
By my sophomore year in high school I had taught myself to play guitar and sing like Glenn Yarborough. I added twenty-seven of the dreariest, darkest most depressing songs ever written to my repertoire. I was a hit at church summer picnics playing for the potato salad, baked bean and hot dog crowd. I even performed at a few ice cream socials. Eventually I was booked into a Sunday morning service introducing, what would become my signature song for the next decade: “Early In The Morning.”
My friend Kim was overjoyed with my endeavors to be a rising folk singing, protest song writing star like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. She even helped to write a few of my more morose, depressive tunes. And when it seemed I would perish in my Junior year Chemistry class, she encouraged me to change my major from College Preparation to music. By some miracle my parents agreed. Instead of learning useless experiments I found myself in the high school “A cappella Choir” singing tenor.
In the spring of 1965, preparations were underway for the high school “A cappella Choir” presentation of “The Sound of Music.” Kim, who spoke less and less about our engagement and more about how great it was to have such a great brother like me, was playing Maria. Actually she was Maria.
With a bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow I saw Kim’s star rising. I had not thought of her as beautiful, but something vibrant and joyful was beginning to blossom in her. She was in fact morphing into a total beauty. Her voice, angelic, sweet, sultry and pure made me smile as few things could. With so much self indulgence, and narcissism developing in my life, Kim’s celebrity status began to distance us. There were fewer rides together on the bus. Our intimate conversations were growing fewer and far between.
When we did meet she seemed to look at me with a sadness that reminded me she was going away soon.
“Did you like the play?” she asked me on the Monday morning bus ride after the weekend performance.
“Not really,” I said. “I mean I was moving scenery all night long, I didn’t get to see much of it.”
She took my hand and waited until I turned to look at her. “You thought I was great though, didn’t you?”
My eyes burned with the tears I was fighting back. My throat was tight as if my body had produced something to cram up into my esophogus. This was the moment. I had rehearsed a thousand times what I wanted to say to her, but instead of coming out of my mouth it all seemed to want to gush out through my eye gates.
In misery I only thought once more of the words I wanted to say, “You saved my life Kim. You’re like the best sister I could have ever had and I don’t want you to go. Not now. You are beautiful, gorgeous, amazing and the truest friend I have ever had. I can hardly wait to see you in the morning and I pray for you every night. I know you are beyond me in every way and you have a big life out there somewhere, but I will always love you because you rescued me from teen-hell. You made me feel worthy of love and kindness. You own my heart and you always will. My dearest sister please don’t leave.”
Instead I bent my head towards her and mumbled a: “you were very good.”
I felt her body, soul and mind stiffen. Our one moment of truth was passing as we rolled into the industrial end of town. The pear orchards were in full bloom. The hills around the town were a lush green for the first time in months. The temperature was to be in the mid-eighties that day. I had smiled when I saw Kim dance up the stairs of the bus. She was wearing her favorite white skirt and a floral print blouse. Her hair, which she said many times, “drives me crazy,” was full of life, cascading in vibrant shades of gold, auburn and bronze.
“Look Kim,” I finally said, daring to look into her face that was streaked with a few of her own tears, “I thought you were cool. Better than that Julie person. Way more cool.”
Thankfully she laughed and wiped her cheek with a tissue that appeared from no where. “I was pretty good wasn’t I? Not as good as that Julie person, but I’ll get there.” She let her smile linger as she searched for what more needed to be said. “I’ll write you when…well you know, when I’m on my way.”
“I know you will,” I said, having heard it a thousand times.
As the bus rolled into the school parking lot, Kim squeezed my hand.
“Listen, Carl is going to be picking me up and will drive me to and from school now. You know now that he’s my…”
“Carl? Mr. Christopher Plummer!”
“Yes Carl. We’ve started dating, I told you that.”
“I know you told me. But I didn’t think you meant it. And as a Captain Von Trapp, he was pretty lame!”
“I thought you didn’t see the show?”
“Well I was kind of drawn to the bad parts so I saw a lot of your “Captain.” Kim laughed and gave me the look I had seen for the last couple of weeks. It was her version of cute and she puckered her lips as if to kiss me.
“I will miss your dark moronic ways of looking at life,” she said.
“And I am going to miss you sis,” I thought.
“Anyway I’ll see you in choir and at lunch with the gang. Just like usual, right?”
“Right.” But she was truly Carl’s girl now, and her conveyance out of my life just served to affirm that I was right to stay cool. Never want anything too much or count on having anyone to have and hold in this life forever. I knew in the days of preparing for Kim’s inevitable exit from my life that the “Sound of Music’s” happy ending was such a magnificent lie that even the glorious Miss Julie Andrews couldn’t make it believable to me.
That evening, with these affirmations tucked safely into the Secret Vault of my soul, I began working on the message I was to bring to the Sunday night youth group. As a senior member of that group I traded off giving the message with youth Pastor Harold.
My text was from Judges 16:4 – 31, the story of Sampson’s betrayal by Delilah and his ultimate destruction as he, after twenty years of battling Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, finally killed more of them in one moment than he had in all of his life.
I had thought of a thousand ways of making the message relevant for my group. But on that Sunday night, casting off the last tie I had with Kim, bending into what I believed to be my “Lonely Troubadour Destiny” I did not even try to find an application. I just read the verses that meant the most to me:
“And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, ‘O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.’
And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.
And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.” (Judges 16:28-31)
My message, in the end, could not deliver to my peers the immense amount of hope they would need for the coming days, weeks and years. Instead I just let my message serve as an introduction to my song: “If I Had My Way.” I was ready to give the performance of a life time. All I had needed was a few impressionable, floundering souls to be my audience. I was on my way.
As I viciously tore my fingers across the strings of my guitar, my voice growled out the words with such an intensity that I was physically gone at the song’s end. Without so much as an amen, I packed away my stuff, stole away to my car and prepared to leave for home.
As I glanced back towards the church an image captured my attention and then was so indelibly engraved on my mind that it haunted me during the ride home, through my night’s sleep and for many waking hours of the next week. It was the image of a face. It was the image of the face of a girl who stood just within the rim of the low church lights. She stood within the farthest edge of the light radiating from the church parking lot’s illumination. She watched intently as I packed away my gear. For the next several Sunday evenings I was always aware of her shadowy presence waiting; as though it were waiting – waiting for my permission to materialize as something real from the edge of night. Kelly.